A quietly emotive film anchored by commanding performances, ‘1985’ is a gentle, moving exploration of repression, fear and family that tackles its subject matter with great sensitivity. The result is a transcendent story about love and acceptance that resonates far beyond its target audience.
Despite being set in the middle of an era of Sony Walkmans, record shops and 80s multiplex movies, 1985 is a film that could not be more resonant with our era of media paranoia and hysteria. That’s because in its exploration of life for a young gay man in the height of the AIDS crisis, the film stays firmly fixed on its protagonist and the real world realities of the people in his life, and succeeds at painting his loved ones as ordinary folk trying to do the best they can in an uncertain world.
Adrian (played with tender sensitivity by Cory Michael Smith) is a handsome, successful city worker returning home to his family for the Christmas holidays. There’s his Conservative, deeply religious father Dale (The Shield’s Michael Chiklis) and his supportive, encouraging mother Eileen (the brilliant Virginia Madsen) and younger brother Andrew (Aiden Langford), as well as estranged friend/old flame Carly (the magnetic Jamie Chung). But prodigal son Adrian has returned with two secrets, that over the course of the film will expose, redefine and transform his relationships with those closest to him.
Shot in black and white and perfectly capturing that sense of small town alienation after living in a big city, 1985 is full of quietly powerful moments, as Adrian is forced to navigate a world he no longer feels he belongs in. It’s full of family exchanges simmering with tension, with everything from awkward family dinners, drinks on the porch with dad and the exchanging of gifts something of a tug of war between his parents’ repressive ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ worldview and Adrian’s deepening cries for help.
But part of 1985’s charm is the way it deals with (and ultimately resolves) these tensions. His father Dale, in particular, is depicted as much more than the overfamiliar closed-minded Republican stereotype, instead of penetrating the depths of a man struggling to understand his masculinity in a rapidly changing world. Ultimately he is a father who deeply loves his son, and this only heightens our sense of compassion for all the characters involved.
Not enough can be said about Virginia Madsen’s Eileen, whose gentle encouragements to her sons feel heartfelt and genuine, leading to a climactic scene that is at once a small moment and a sea change in how we view her. Madsen has delivered several excellent, nuanced performances over the years (her stellar work in Alexander Payne’s Sideways one noteworthy example), but her turn here is brilliantly conceived and award-worthy.
Jamie Chung’s Carly is also on hand to inject warmth, humour and even rage at key points in the story, and shines as the young woman confused and infuriated by Adrian’s mixed messages. Their scenes together are always electric, and ultimately one of the film’s most heart-warming developments.
But all of these elements would have proved redundant if not for Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith, whose impressive central performance is at the centre of this film’s orbit. In his hands, viewers are offered a window into Adrian’s fears and troubles, and ultimately his triumph at overcoming them.
Revealing a deep respect for its characters and offering a rewarding but unexpected conclusion, 1985 is a surprising gem of a film that deserves to reach a wide audience.
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Drama | USA, 2018 | 15| 20th December 2018 (UK) | Peccadillo Pictures | Dir.Yen Tan | Cory Michael Smith, Jamie Chung, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis |